Babylonian Rosh Hashanah
Rosh Hashanah, now one of the most important festivals in the Jewish calendar, is hardly mentioned in the Bible. The following is the instruction on its observance, in Leviticus 23:
ויקרא כג:כג וַיְדַבֵּר יְ־הוָה אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. כג:כד דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִיעִי בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ יִהְיֶה לָכֶם שַׁבָּתוֹן זִכְרוֹן תְּרוּעָה מִקְרָא קֹדֶשׁ. כג:כה כָּל מְלֶאכֶת עֲבֹדָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם אִשֶּׁה לַי־הוָה.
Lev 23:23 And YHWH spoke unto Moses, saying: 23:24 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying: In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns (זכרון תרועה), a holy convocation. 23:25 Ye shall do no manner of servile work; and ye shall bring an offering made by fire unto YHWH.
A similar instruction, with a detailed description of the sacrificial offerings, is found in Numbers 29, 1-6.
There is nothing in this laconic instruction that would indicate that this is the New Year's festival, especially since the seventh month (Tishrei), not the first (Nissan), is mentioned. Nevertheless, the evidence from the later Mishnah Rosh Hashanah suggests that both Tishrei and Nissan were among four beginnings of the year.
Indeed, in Rabbinic literature, the first day of the seventh month, that is, the first day of the month of Tishrei, was much more than a "solemn rest" day. The day was considered the New Year, a day of judgment, the day of God's enthronement and kingship, and the very day in which the universe was created. The tradition that the world was created in the beginning of the year, whether Tishrei or Nissan, is found in a baraita cited in the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 10b-11a. The question is whether this later Rabbinic perception of Rosh Hashanah has its origins in the biblical world.
New Years in the Ancient Near East
A wider look at the New Year's festival in the Ancient Near Eastern world may give us some insights beyond this laconic biblical description, and may help in filling the gap between the instructions in Leviticus and Numbers and the later traditions.
Before describing the New Year's festival in ancient Mesopotamia, as known mainly from texts written in cuneiform script on clay tablets in the Akkadian language, stemming from the first millennium BCE, the following question should first be asked: When did the New Year begin in ancient Mesopotamia?
Depending on time and place, the Mesopotamian New Year began either in the beginning of autumn, on the first day of the seventh month, called Tashritu (the origin of the Hebrew month-name Tishrei, not yet found in the Bible), literally meaning "Beginning," and in the beginning of spring, on the first day of the first month, called Nisannu (Hebrew Nisan, found in the late biblical texts Esther 3:7 and Nehemiah 2:1), originally a Sumerian word meaning "First-fruit (offering)." Thus, even the names of both months exhibit their calendrical role as "beginnings."
ANE New Year's Rituals: The Akitu Festival
During the Mesopotamian New Year's festivals, a complex set of rituals took place. The following description is based on texts dealing with the month of Nisannu in the city of Babylon, but similar descriptions are known also in the context of the month of Tashritu.
The framework in which the New Year's festival occurred was called the akitu-festival, and it lasted eleven days, beginning on the first of Nisannu and ending on the eleventh of Nisannu. The main two cultic events in this period were a procession of the statue of the main Babylonian god, Marduk, to a temple in the outskirts of the city, called the akitu-temple, on the eighth day; he was then returned back to his cella in the main temple of Babylon on the eleventh day, the last day of the ritual.
These events corresponded to the mythological setting of the Babylonian myth called Enuma Elish which served as the central narrative and as the theological basis for the god Marduk and his city Babylon. The myth tells of Marduk’s battle and victory over the sea-goddess Tiamat and her furious monsters, the creation of the universe from her corpse, and Marduk's enthronement as king of the gods and the universe.
The Babylonian Rosh Hashanah
In the akitu-festival, Marduk's mythological going out to war against Tiamat was conceived as the cultic procession to the akitu temple, in which the mythological combat itself was understood to have taken place. The cultic procession back to Marduk's main temple was conceived as his return to Babylon after his victory, and he was then (re)enthroned there as king of the gods. The statue of Marduk was then seated in the eastern annex of the temple called the Dais-of-Destinies, where he makes the judgments and decides the destinies for the coming year.
According to Babylonian religious perception, this mythical drama, namely the victory over the sea-goddess and her monsters, the creation of the world, Marduk's enthronement, and his judgment, all occurred in the first days of the year, in the beginning of the month of Nisannu, and the cultic acts were perceived as reflecting these mythical occurrences. Indeed, the myth recounting this, Enuma elish, was recited as part of this ritual by a priest in Marduk's cella, in front of Marduk's statue, on the fourth day of Nisannu, before the beginning of the procession to the akitu-temple a few days later. This is indicated by the ritual instructions from Babylon:
Following the second meal (offering) of the afternoon, the "big-brother" priest of the E-umusha-cella will recite Enuma Elish to the god Bel (= Marduk) from its beginning to its end.
Thus the Babylonian New Year ritual, whether celebrated in spring or fall, contained the following elements: combat and victory, creation, divine enthronement, and judgment.
The Akitu and the Biblical Conception of God's Kingship
Returning to the Bible, we find that these four elements are all linked together in some of the Psalms. This is best seen in Psalm 74. In verses 12-17, God’s kingship is associated with a primordial battle against the sea and its creatures, and the creation of the world:
תהלים עד:יב וֵאלֹהִים מַלְכִּי מִקֶּדֶם פֹּעֵל יְשׁוּעוֹת בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ. עד:יג אַתָּה פוֹרַרְתָּ בְעָזְּךָ יָם שִׁבַּרְתָּ רָאשֵׁי תַנִּינִים עַל הַמָּיִם. עד:יד אַתָּה רִצַּצְתָּ רָאשֵׁי לִוְיָתָן תִּתְּנֶנּוּ מַאֲכָל לְעָם לְצִיִּים. עד:טו אַתָּה בָקַעְתָּ מַעְיָן וָנָחַל אַתָּה הוֹבַשְׁתָּ נַהֲרוֹת אֵיתָן. עד:טז לְךָ יוֹם אַף לְךָ לָיְלָה אַתָּה הֲכִינוֹתָ מָאוֹר וָשָׁמֶשׁ. עד:יז אַתָּה הִצַּבְתָּ כָּל גְּבוּלוֹת אָרֶץ קַיִץ וָחֹרֶף אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּם.
Ps 74:12 O God, my King from of old, who brings deliverance throughout the land; 74:13 it was You who drove back the sea with Your might, who smashed the heads of the monsters in the waters; 74:14 it was You who crushed the heads of Leviathan, who left him as food for the denizens of the desert; 74:15 it was You who released springs and torrents, who made mighty rivers run dry; 74:16 the day is Yours, the night also; it was You who set in place the orb of the sun; 74:17 You fixed all the boundaries of the earth; summer and winter—You made them.
After mentioning these primordial acts, the following verses in the Psalm deal with judgment, (social) justice, and the covenant. Thus, God’s battle and creation are associated with His kingship and His judgment.
Similarly, judgment is linked to God’s kingship and to the creation of the world in Psalm 96, especially in verse 10:
תהלים צו:י אִמְרוּ בַגּוֹיִם יְ־הוָה מָלָךְ אַף תִּכּוֹן תֵּבֵל בַּל תִּמּוֹט יָדִין עַמִּים בְּמֵישָׁרִים.
Ps 96:10 Declare among the nations, “YHWH is king!” the world stands firm; it cannot be shaken; He judges the peoples with equity.
The question is whether these four elements (battle and victory, creation, enthronement, and judgment) are linked to the biblical New Year, as they are in ancient Mesopotamia.
The Shofar: Linking New Year to the Holiday of the Seventh Month
It seems that a link can be made in the Bible too, and this is done through the blowing of the shofar. As seen above, already in Leviticus and Numbers the first day of the seventh month is considered a yom teru’ah. In the Bible, the blowing of the shofar is a major symbol of enthronement and kingship. Enthronement and the blowing of the shofar are explicitly linked in Psalm 47 (which much later becomes the Psalm recited in the Rosh Hashanah prayers before the blowing of the shofar); see especially verses 3 and 6-9:
תהלים מז:ג כִּי יְ־הוָה עֶלְיוֹן נוֹרָא מֶלֶךְ גָּדוֹל עַל כָּל הָאָרֶץ.
Ps 47:3 For YHWH Most High is awesome, great king over all the earth;
מז:ו עָלָה אֱלֹהִים בִּתְרוּעָה יְ־הֹוָה בְּקוֹל שׁוֹפָר. מז:ז זַמְּרוּ אֱלֹהִים זַמֵּרוּ זַמְּרוּ לְמַלְכֵּנוּ זַמֵּרוּ. מז:ח כִּי מֶלֶךְ כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֱלֹהִים זַמְּרוּ מַשְׂכִּיל. מז:ט מָלַךְ אֱלֹהִים עַל גּוֹיִם אֱלֹהִים יָשַׁב עַל כִּסֵּא קָדְשׁוֹ.
47:6 God ascends midst acclamation; YHWH, to the blasts of the horn. 47:7 Sing, O sing to God; sing, O sing to our king; 47:8 for God is king over all the earth; sing a hymn. 47:9 God reigns over the nations; God is seated on His holy throne.
Thus, some scholars suggested that the mention of the shofar together with God’s enthronement may indicate the association of this enthronement–and the battle, creation and judgment linked with it–with the New Year.
Rosh Hashanah in Context
If the above suggestion is correct, the biblical “New Year” holiday should be seen in the context of the Ancient Near Eastern New Year described above, where all these elements (battle, creation, judgment, and enthronement) were connected together. The significance of this historical context and its interpretation is the subject of different views.
Some see it as a direct influence from Mesopotamia to ancient Israel, some see it as an indirect influence that passed through the linkage of Syrian and Canaanite cultures. Yet others see the references in the Psalms as remnants, with the mainstream instruction on the first day of the seventh month in Leviticus and Numbers intentionally making no mention of myth and creation.
Whatever the relationship may be, the association of the New Year with elements of God’s primordial battles, creation, enthronement, and judgment, brings to light some latent themes of the holiday and places them in their Ancient Near Eastern context.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
September 14, 2014
September 5, 2021
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series
Prof. Uri Gabbay is Associate Professor of Assyriology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Archaeology. He received his Ph.D. in Assyriology from the Hebrew University in 2008. He edited (with Shai Secunda) the book Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity.
Essays on Related Topics: